The joy of indie films is the surprise that comes from low expectations. Compliance (2012) is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It was also one of the most disturbing, infuriating thrillers, perhaps because it’s so reminiscent of the Milgram experiments, I’ve ever had to endure.
According to the film, in the decade leading up to 2004, more than 70 cases were reported of a man, pretending to be a police officer or some other authority figure, who called a fast-food restaurant and requested strip searches of employees. Each incident shared a similar pattern: The purported officer claimed to need help to solve a case, which required a manager to remove a female employee’s clothing and, in some cases, perform sexual acts on her.
The film is based on one such event, which occurred at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky., in 2004. In Zobel’s version, Dreama Walker stars as Becky, a blond, teenage employee of “Chickwich,” a fictional fast-food restaurant in Ohio, and Ann Dowd stars — in an epically nuanced, Oscar-worthy performance — as her well-meaning manager, Sandra.
Early in the film, Sandra receives a call from a man claiming to be a local police officer named “Officer Daniels,” who explains that Becky has been accused of stealing from a customer. Officer Daniels then instructs Sandra to remove Becky’s clothes, her belongings, to help him “find the money,” and then — well, it just gets worse from there.
Here’s the thing: the least likely characters are the only ones who show some spine, and refuse to “help” Daniels. Becky’s co-worker, Kevin, who’s flirting is borderline creepy and an aging custodian, Harold, who’s a dead ringer for Kris Kristofferson, question who this guy on the phone really is. Kevin actually texts a friend, to corroborate details of Daniels’ back story. Everyone follows like sheep, puzzled, yet not one thinks to ask for proof of identification or even request a lawyer for Becky. Instead, this is what happens:
Sandra explains to Daniels that she must resume managing the restaurant during the busy work day, and the caller instructs her to leave Becky under the watch of a male employee for “security reasons”. Sandra enlists Kevin for the task, but he protests the caller’s orders to inspect Becky and refuses to be involved. Eventually Sandra brings in her fiancé Van to watch over Becky. Through Daniels’ demands, Becky is ordered to remove the apron and perform jumping jacks nude for Van, under the pretense that contraband may be concealed in her body. When Sandra briefly visits the room, Becky attempts to plead with her about the ordeal. As punishment for this “disobedient” plea, the caller orders Becky to submit to a spanking by Van and to perform oral sex on him. After Van leaves with guilt, Daniels asks for another male to take his place. The custodian Harold is called in and is outraged by the caller’s orders. When Harold tells Sandra the caller’s intentions, she phones the regional manager and realizes that Daniels’ call is a scam.
I feel anger, not just because both Sandra and Becky are victimized. I also know, short of a world full of Kevin’s and Harold’s, this sort of disgrace is probably too common to dwell on for too long. It also makes me wonder if I would have been as perceptive and ethical as both men.